LTNs and the policy of virtuous obstruction
Councils are returning to the tolls and divisions of medievalism.
In the Middle Ages, passing from one area to another meant paying tolls - bridge tolls, canal tolls, road tolls, tolls to enter a city or town. The country was carved up into a patchwork of authorities who policed the movement of people from one part to another. Those with special privileges were able to pass from one zone to another: free travel was a liberty granted as an exemption, not as a right.
With the expansion of the market, these tolls and checks on internal travel were removed. Cities were integrated with the surrounding countryside, the land on one side of a bridge with that on the other. Nineteenth century municipal socialism paved and lit city streets, and built boulevards to ease congestion, then later provided trains, trams and buses to make it easier to get from one place to another.
Now, there is a return to medievalism in cities such as Oxford and London, where the city is being carved up into a series of shut-off streets (‘low-traffic neighbourhoods’, LTNs), on which car traffic is banned and residents must enter through a single entrance and exit. There are also ever-widening low emission zones (now stretching out to Heathrow airport), and plans for e-gates on key arterial roads in Oxford that can only be crossed by residents with a permit that grants them a certain number of crossings per year. A person wanting to travel a short distance across Oxford or Canterbury would have to make a large diversion, leaving the city and going all the way around the ringroad, then back into the city.
The vision of public authorities is of cities as patchworks, where everyone walks and cycles around within 15 minutes of their home, and only occasionally crosses into neighbouring zones, the crossings to which are guarded with cameras that check numberplates and extract fines.
What we see here is the founding of the public authority on virtuous obstruction. Restriction has become the single ‘public service’, and the primary means of transforming an area and making it nicer. Rather than build new transport systems - or even maintain a decent cycle network - Oxford County Council uses public taxes for the closing of roads.
Today’s officials see short-sighted public conduct as the primary block on social improvement. The problems of cities are seen as a problem of people making wrong decisions, for example by using cars when they do not really need to. The roadblock - like electroshock for the mentally ill - is supposed to spur people towards better, correct decisions, which means that they and everyone else will be happier. (One local councillor said that most people need a ‘serious nudge’ which will result in some ‘pain’).
This official mentality is estranged from the reality of city life and the reasons why people sometimes need to use cars - as has been pointed by Reconnecting Oxford and the Together Foundation. In reality, few of us can cycle up Oxford’s Headington Hill, especially with shopping or children in tow. Policy documents are full of pictures of happy people walking and cycling, surrounded by trees. But on the ground the result is traffic jams and cursing, with mothers with young children struggling to get to the supermarket and elderly people to get to their hospital appointments.
These measures create nothing; they merely restrict. Nothing will come of nothing: the main result of roadblocks will be blocked roads.
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